graphic of Pugel

It’s not that Kimberly Pugel is somehow immune to fear.

When she thinks about planet-sized crises like climate change and water scarcity, she gets scared like anyone else.

It’s what she does next that marks Pugel as special.

She turns that fear into productive, positive action. A doctoral candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she plans to complete her doctorate in civil engineering systems this summer, Pugel is not running from those challenges but instead facing them head-on, using an interdisciplinary array of skills to develop solutions.

ASCE has honored her as a 2021 New Face of Civil Engineering.

Pugel’s work combines environmental engineering, planning, policymaking, and a heavy dose of communication skills, particularly as it relates to facilitating communication between stakeholders and decision-makers.

“I definitely see myself as part of a team that’s working tirelessly to help governments build robust systems and policies so they can make water infrastructure reliably provide services amid climate change,” Pugel said, describing how she envisions her career.

She’s served four years volunteering with the U.N. Major Group for Children and Youth on their Science Policy Interface platform, advocating to strengthen the involvement of younger generations in policymaking for the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. Most recently, she’s developed a research program to assess international development projects that strengthen rural water and sanitation systems in East Africa.

Pugel, S.M.ASCE, spoke recently with Civil Engineering Source about her career.

headshot of Pugel

Civil Engineering Source: How did you come to approach engineering from this more holistic, systems standpoint?

Kimberly Pugel: To be honest, I was motivated to pursue this type of engineering more out of fear and frustration than inspiration, if that makes sense.

Our world is facing such huge, scary challenges. Our climate is warming past the point of no return. We have 2 billion people who don’t have basic sanitation services. We have 100-year storms that are hitting every few years, displacing millions.

I think that really jolted me, these big problems that my generation is facing. But on top of that, I became frustrated because I saw engineers trying to solve these problems through infrastructure alone.

And don’t get me wrong, focusing on the infrastructure alone can be a fantastic approach for a lot of problems – like if you have a leaking underground storage tank or a wastewater treatment plant to upgrade. But for these big, scary, systemic problems, I saw that focusing on infrastructure alone led to failure. That was really frustrating to me, because I think like a lot of people, I wholeheartedly believe that infrastructure should actually provide a service for its design life and improve people’s lives.

For these systemic problems, what I’ve learned is that you have to have a system in place before you design infrastructure.

I’ll give an example from some of my recent work that I’ve been doing that’s in the context of sanitation.

If you have a latrine that is designed to provide access to sanitation to a family or two for 10 years, it can’t do it all by itself. It needs to have institutional arrangements for a vacuum truck, let’s say, to come empty it when it fills. It needs to have an operating treatment plant to dump the waste at. It needs to have financing mechanisms to subsidize the vac truck so the households can afford to pay for it. It needs to have regulatory oversight, so the treatment plant is treating to acceptable levels. The wastewater utility needs to be accountable; it needs to have the capacity to plan for increasing urbanization. And overall, you need to have an administration office that has the right policies in place and the right coordination mechanisms in place so that all those things actually work.

So I guess what I’m getting at is there is so much more needed before you start the construction of that latrine.

More recently, after I shifted my focus, I’ve been really inspired by some of the work I’ve seen by some organizations, who are trying to strengthen the systems surrounding infrastructure. It’s really opened my eyes to this way of, I guess, complementing the way engineering gets done.

Source: The motivation you derive from climate change and the other challenges facing the planet, when did that start for you?

Pugel: I grew up in a small, old mining town in rural California, and it actually was home to the state’s biggest and oldest mine. And for years, ever since it was created in the 1800s, it’s been polluting one of the rivers and affecting the water quality. When I was in high school, our town got a grant to put in a passive remediation system to solve it, and it was something that I never realized – there were people who had this job of going and fixing people’s water sources. That’s when I knew I wanted to be an engineer working on water issues.

In becoming an engineer, I liked the math, I loved the chemistry. But with the skills that I learned, I didn’t think I could fully tackle some of these bigger-picture problems. And I knew that’s what I wanted to work on, so I returned to grad school to learn the skills to work on these types of problems.

Source: Obviously, those systems also depend on policymakers and other decision-makers to function. How would you suggest engineers better influence those decisionmakers, whether it’s at a local or national level?

Pugel: So, there’s no secret formula, I hate to tell you. But what I have learned is that who makes decisions varies so much between contexts. So I would say just do your homework, know who the decision-makers are, know their priorities, know the constraints they’re working under, know if they make decisions based on evidence.

All decision-makers, no matter where you are, they’re all balancing a ton of priorities with limited budgets. So getting their buy-in is incredibly difficult, especially if you’re working on a new type of project that’s unfamiliar.

One of the most impressive, effective tactics that’s probably as close to a secret formula as you can get, in my experience, is efforts that bring decision-makers together with other stakeholders in the same room and facilitate them to identify problems and come to solutions collectively.

And not the barely-scratching-the-surface, echo-chamber type of forums where decisionmakers will quote-unquote hear statements from stakeholders, when they’ve actually already made up their minds.

I’ve seen a lot of that.

I guess I mean this more constructively than as a critique, in some of my volunteer work with the United Nations, I’ve learned how so much happens behind the scenes of U.N. forums. A lot of decisions are made before the forum even starts. And it makes it so there’s not a lot of space for things to actually get done during the meetings.

Source: I know you’ve done a lot of work in East Africa. What form has that taken?

Pugel: I work on a project with the U.S. Agency for International Development to generate evidence for future USAID programming and policies for water and sanitation. Essentially, USAID is trying to fund new types of international development programs, and my research evaluates 11 of those programs, compares the costs to the benefits, and identifies best practices. These programs bring decision-makers, the private sector, mechanics, government engineers, a lot of different stakeholders together to collectively identify problems in their water and sanitation system and then find ways to solve them together.

Besides the policy implications of this work, one thing I really love is getting to travel to the field. I think that’s probably not a surprise. I’ve been really lucky to travel multiple times a year – pre-COVID of course – to East Africa.

I get to go and observe the meetings and see how the work unfolds live. I’ve spent a total of more than seven months there in the field, sometimes in pretty extreme conditions. I’ve actually had my shoes melt once, visiting a solar-powered borehole in the hottest and driest region in the world.

I think one of the reasons that place has always stuck with me is the people are so resilient. They live in those shoe-melting temperatures. Those people are experiencing climate change every single day. And the people in this area are pastoralists, meaning that they don’t have one place where they live; every season, they’ll move to follow where the water goes. So every year they have to move further and further because it’s becoming drier and drier with climate change.

It’s so eye-opening to me, because I think a lot of people here in the U.S. see climate change as something that’s going to affect future generations. But it’s ruining people’s lives like right now, as we speak.

And that is so horrifying.

Source: Looking back, given all you’ve learned, is there any advice you’d give your younger self?

Pugel: I remember when I first became interested in policy, I was really intimidated. I thought there would be no way to combine engineering experience with policy or programming; that if I chose one path, I would lose the other. But they aren’t mutually exclusive. It really takes time to find the right balance.

So I would tell my younger self or anyone else in my shoes that getting experience actually informing policies and programs takes a lot of time and even more patience.

Change is slow but stick with it. Over time, you do have the power to change things.

Read more about the 2021 New Faces of Civil Engineering.